LIFE highlights the climate change crisis through powerful movement, encouraging awareness and action.
The work takes its inspiration from the single sycamore tree in a dramatic dip often referred to as Sycamore Gap next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland National Park.
LIFE is a stirring performance with bold choreography, performed by five dynamic dancers, with original music by award-winning composer, Adam Johnson, and stunning backdrops by renowned figurative artist Bernadette Koranteng.
Choreographer Eliot Smith
Dancers Lian Draycott, Nathan Keenoo (Apprentice), Yamit Salazar, Niki Tsonopoulou
Music Written, Orchestrated and Produced by Adam Johnson
Musicians Tristan Banks (Drums), Paul Booth (Percussion), John Garner (Solo Violin), Ryan Quigley (Trumpets), Virginia Slater (Viola)
Mastering by Christopher Sanchez
Backdrop Artist Bernadette Korentang
Property Designer Tim Kendall and Eliot Smith
Premiered at Alnwick Playhouse, 11 November 2021
In conversation with Eliot Smith
Reflection on LIFE by Eliot Smith
LIFE takes its inspiration from the single sycamore tree in a dramatic dip often referred to as Sycamore Gap next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland National Park.
This tree stands alone, surrounded by an impressive landscape. It rises in a gap caused by melting glacial waters thousands of years ago which triggered my thoughts about “the tree of life” and its “temperate climate–biosphere”.
This led me to find out more about our ecosystem and the human impact on the environment – deforestation, loss of biodiversity of wildlife, changing weather patterns, and rising temperatures.
Throughout 2021, we have witnessed the consequences of “climate change” across the world – with the terrible flooding in the UK and across Europe and China, forest fires in Turkey and Greece and the record temperatures in Africa, Australia, and North America.
Climate change is frequently talked about in vague terms — temperatures and sea levels are rising. But this is only one of many effects it has on our planet and human life. The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial injustices that surfaced demonstrate the stark interaction of social, economic factors and public health disparities experienced by people of colour worldwide.
Climate change is a serious threat to our planet and people from all walks of life and is a major concern for communities already vulnerable due to social inequalities. These threats are real and should unite us all because they threaten us all.
Evidence suggests from my online public survey that 73% agree climate change is affecting or is going to affect people personally and over 66% take action out of concern for climate change by changing their lifestyles and participate in climate demonstrations.
I wanted to explore this further and in August 2021 for three consecutive days, I followed the campaign group Extinction Rebellion (XR) in London which included, Standing up for the rights of rainforests, indigenous communities and Female, Intersex, Non-Binary & Trans people in the face of climate change. I remember being surrounded by hundreds of ordinary people of all colours, genders and backgrounds united as one.
My impetus to create LIFE was the desire to present a visual, physical, and auditory awareness of climate change, in conjunction with the crucial 26th United Nation Climate Change Conference (COP26). Most of the props on stage are made from recycled materials and the costumes are mostly made with 80% recycled material or bought from local secondhand shops.
LIFE is created around three sections, Find The Strength; I Thirst; With Honour ACTion.
This research is ongoing.
Thank you to all those who have contributed to my ongoing research for LIFE: ESD Creatives and Artists; Alnwick Area Friends of the Earth; Greta Thunberg’s ‘No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference’; James Lovelock ‘Gaia’; Jeremy Williams ‘Climate Change Is Racist’; Aja Barber 'Consumed'; Green Heart Collective; Nation Trust Hadrian's Wall and Team Valley Group; the responses from my online public survey Climate Change and Dance; and anonymous groups and individuals.
Sycamore Gap by Andrew Poad, National Trust
The background to the tree is that it was planted in the latter half of the 19th Century when the farm it sits on was part of the large Chesters Estate, owned by John Clayton (he of Clayton Street in Newcastle). Clayton was responsible for saving much of the Wall in the NE in his spare time (he was head of the largest legal practice in the north of England). We see today and carry out some of the first excavations, taking all his finds home with him and keeping them in his ‘garden shed’ at Chesters – now the Chesters Museum.
Many of the farm steadings and field patterns along the Wall in the central section were built/remodelled by Clayton at this time and the tree seems to have appeared as part of this – quite possibly planted by a landowner with an eye for the aesthetic. Its name, Sycamore Gap, was finally joined by a previous National Trust Warden who gave that to the OS when they were reviewing the maps in the area in the 1970’s.
Until the late 1970’s the tree continued to quietly mature until its peace was shattered by a programme of excavations that continued through until the late 80’s. As a result the northern half of its root ball was removed to excavate the Wall along its northern side. There was a risk that the tree would die as a result of this, so a replacement was planted a few meters to the south and a circular dry stone ‘stell’ was built around it to protect it.
Then, in 1989 Hollywood arrived in the form of Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman and the ‘Prince of Thieves’ movie. Wanting to use the mature tree, the film crew were stuck with what to do with the new tree and its drystone protection. They therefore put a turf roof on it and set fire to it to make it look like a burnt out hut. Great for the film, but the new sapling never fully recovered. As it tried to, over the subsequent years, the farmer’s cattle continued to lean over the drystone wall and trim its leaves. By 2017/8, safe in the knowledge that the original sycamore was thriving and the sapling less so, with its drystone protection in need of constant repair, the decision was taken to remove the newcomer altogether.
Hollywood certainly raised the tree’s profile as it became known through the 90’s and into the Noughties as ‘The Robin Hood Tree’. As that notoriety waned, then we believe social media began to kick in and ‘Sycamore Gap’ once again began to rise in prominence throughout the last decade, culminating in it winning English ‘Tree of the Year’ in 2016. Its popularity has continued to grow since then with it becoming almost the ‘icon’ of Hadrian’s Wall in imagery used on local products and in publicity – and Covid lockdowns have, if anything, added to the footfall around the tree. It is that footfall that could now potentially threaten the tree with erosion around its base. Thankfully most people want to look at it and photograph it from a short distance, but something to keep an eye on so that it can continue to thrive for many generations to come and enjoy.
Eliot Smith Dance acknowledge the support for LIFE from Arts Council England, Northumberland Arts Development, and Eliot Smith Dance successful Crowdfunder in 2021